I pounced on this because I enjoyed/admired/appreciated Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, about the murder of Christopher Marlowe, and because I was mad about Simon Vance’s reading of Dust and Shadow. Those two, plus Shakespeare, indicated an instant win.
First of all, I’m going to try to remember not to approach histories through Audible. If an author feels maps and illustrations and charts and the like are useful, then audio is not the way to go. The Civil War series I’ve already bought should be all right (except maybe for want of maps) – but something like this, which according to Google Books has 36 illustrations, loses in translation.
What this is, is an examination of what can be learned or inferred about Shakespeare from his deposition in a case that involved his landlord. “On Monday 11 May 1612, William Shakespeare gave evidence in a lawsuit at the Court of Requests in Westminster. His statement, or deposition, was taken down by a clerk of the court, writing in an averagely illegible hand on a sheet of paper measuring about 12 x 16 inches (see Plate 1) [see?]. At the end of the session Shakespeare signed his name at the bottom. It is one of six surviving signatures, and the earliest of them (though it can hardly be called early: he was forty-eight years old and already in semi-retirement).” “The dispute concerned a dowry: a sum of £60 which, Belott alleged, had been promised when he married Mountjoy’s daughter in 1604, and which had never been paid. … Belott also claimed that Mountjoy had promised to leave the couple a legacy of £200 when he died. Mountjoy denied both claims, and now, eight years after the event, the case was before the court.” Shakespeare was to be a valuable witness, as (by then) a gentleman and, very likely, a pretty well-known fellow. He turned out not to be so very valuable, and that’s part of the story.
I appreciate what I have learned from this examination of the period. Shakespeare took up lodgings over a tire-makers’ workshop on Silver Street in Cripplegate. “Tire” in the seventeenth century meant not Dunlops or Michelins, but the “tire” from which “tirewoman” and (I believe) “attire” come from: headgear worn by ladies (and those pretending to be ladies on the stage, and those wanting to attract gentlemen). The house was a decent distance away from the playhouse where Shakespeare still labored – getting there involved crossing the Thames, along with a rather lengthy land-bound slog. The whys and wherefores of this decision are explored; we can’t know once-and-for-all why, any more than we can know the details of anything else we are not given specifically in the court documents or other reliable sources, but this is one of the places where Nicholl exercises his well-honed art of learned supposition.
The tire-makers were Christopher and Marie Mountjoy; they had a daughter, Mary, and an apprentice named Stephen Belott, and, we learn in the course of the lawsuit, Marie had approached Mr. Shakespeare and asked him to persuade Belott to marry Mary. He did so, and the two were betrothed (hand-fasted, apparently) and married – and Mary’s father was not forthcoming with what he had promised. (He was apparently a real piece of work.) From the paperwork surviving from this four hundred year old family dispute (turned up by eccentric Shakespeare fanatics Hulda and Charles William Wallace) can be gleaned a surprising amount of information.
“It is true that biographical readings of the plays are dangerous, unregulated, prone to sentimentalization. It is absurd to cherry-pick passages of poetry written over more than two decades and infer from them a consistent personal attitude. Lines belong in a dramatic context and in the psychological context of the character who utters them and cannot be taken to reflect Shakespeare’s views.”
There are references to Shakespeare noted throughout this book that I’ve never heard of before, from contemporary letters and publications. I’m not an expert – but I would have thought I had read enough to have come across some of the contemporary and slightly post-mortem mentions. Dedications, and mentions of “Prince Hamlet”, notes about meeting with Shakespeare and so on – surprising.
However, this is really a great deal more “The Lodgings of Shakespeare” than “The Lodger Shakespeare”. As illumination of the setting in which Shakespeare lived, it’s wonderful; it explores the terrain in a fascinating, scholarly manner, and suddenly there are sights and sounds and scents, neighbors and lawsuits and voices and arguments enriching my mental image of Shakespeare. Nicholl, I already knew from [book:The Reckoning], has the ability to milk the smallest historical mention for everything it can possibly give. His caution is exemplary; while he does draw conclusions from the historic record, he never jumps to conclusions. The assumptions he makes are logical and sensible, and hedged about with “maybe”s and “possibly”s.
In fact, from what I was able to access on Google Books, I found the following:
Likely – 29 uses of the word
Possibly – 31
Possible – 24
May be – 91
May have – 29
Could be – 53
Perhaps – 87
There are entire chapters which barely mention Shakespeare at all. But close study of the documents surrounding the Mountjoy case and the drawing in of other documented facts allows for intelligent commentary on everything from Shakespeare’s sexuality, the state of his marriage, and the identity of the Dark Lady to what his surroundings were when he wrote. This is painting a portrait of Shakespeare by painting his surroundings. I remember one art school assignment being to pick your favorite shoes and to draw them in fine detail; this was, basically, a self-portrait. (Mine, if anyone’s interested, were a pair of tall floppy boots, which I often wore to faire.) This works both ways, and through existing information. There is an engraving of a writer’s chamber here, and a description of one there, and an average sort of a chamber elsewhere; take into account what Shakespeare’s income was and what he was working on at the time and a variety of other factors, and here is what his room looked like. Here is what the house he lived in looked like. Here is what his neighborhood looked like. Here is what he was like.
I enjoyed it, for the most part; it strayed into dry areas at times, particularly when it wandered away from the topic of Shakespeare himself. I feel I know more in some ways now about the Mountjoy family than I do about Shakespeare himself. But the portrait of William Shakespeare – the Lodger – drawn through this book is one I enjoyed the evolution of. Barring time travel or miraculous discoveries of documents, we’ll never know everything about Shakespeare; this pushed the boundaries of what is guessed into what might be called “known” a little further.
- 10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Shakespeare (history.com)